Dressage: The Sport That Eats Its Young

15 Aug




European Championships at Aachen are bringing out the best—and of course the worst—elements of horse sport. This is a huge stage, a stage that consistently and rightly wins best show of the year, so it is only fitting that some of the big questions go on the table here.
It remains amazing how the dressage cognoscenti—which includes everyone who has ever looked at a horse/seen a horse/thought about a horse/can spell the word ‘horse’ — know everything better than the judges, better than owners, better than riders, better than coaches and grooms.
I have read the comments, the tweets, the scathing oh so clever pieces dismantling the rides one by one, giving credit to the few acknowledged as Right and Good.
And frankly, it all makes me a little sick in the mouth.
Everyone tut-tuts that Carl Hester has ‘taken a piece of clay’ and made it into something special. Frankly: THIS IS DRESSAGE. It is about training, it is about partnership, it is about making each ride a bit better.
Carl, among his many achievements, has produced the current record holders of the sport; this partnership with Nip Tuck is yet another facet of dressage, probably the one that deserves the most applause—a trainer starting a horse, training a horse, showing a horse.
This is what Isabell Werth has been doing for decades; what Anky van Grunsven did for decades; what Edward Gal is starting to do –and has done brilliantly—with Undercover. Here is a horse that came with serious baggage , mostly from tension. And now, he has a horse that WALKS , that halts, that is beginning to truly trust the connection. This is a “robot” as some like to say? Obviously not riders.
Sure, the horse does not have the best canter. And sure, the horse is not Totilas (more on that later). But Ed is training everything, schooling everything, figuring out the best way to ask for everything—and is being rewarded by actual judges.

And many seems to believe that Charlotte Dujardin is herself like a robot, able to turn off nerves and feelings!!  This was obviously not the case in the Grand Prix  which had a few errors, and frankly was also not the case in the Grand Prix Special, where she and Valegro went to The Zone and pulled out a gorgeous test,on (her) world-record pace, but ending barely one percentage point below.
Totilas taught everyone a big lesson: that it is possible to have power and expression without negative tension. I can close my eyes and see him and Ed in one of those magical pi-pa tours, dropping into that cocky yet serene walk, ears catching for the oohs and ahhs as everyone appreciated what we were privileged to watch. A once-in-our-lifetime creature.
Now of course, everyone ‘knows’ that it is possible to have this power without tension: the breeders apparently breed for this; the riders aim for this; the judges reward all this.
And yet, Undercover is stamped a robot. A mechanical bunny manipulated by a rider.
I say total piffle.
As for Totilas, he still draws the crowds and the hordes of internet posts.

So here was Totilas II, post-Ed, post the Dutch team, and now The Comeback.

The buzz was amazing and grew from there.
At the vet check, the horse was not held but had to trot three times before the jury agreed to give the nod. This proved to be the omen for things to come.
The crowd grew as the black stallion and his current rider entered the arena and remained transfixed as the pair went through the movements.
When it was over, everyone could see that the horse had had some problems in engaging the hind end and had taken irregular steps.
And so the hounds of the internet were let loose and began baying.
The screams have only gotten louder: the horse should never have been allowed to pass vet check! Anyone can see total lameness!
Snark snark snark.
The reality is that tension and pressure on riders almost always makes for some poor timing and stutter steps. The reality is that several horses showed more irregularity than Totilas and yet were not rung out. The reality is that we have seen this magical creature probably for the last time and I for one am glad that the jury allowed us this privilege, marred as it was. I can only imagine the screams of protest if the horse had been spun at vet check and we were all left to conjecture as to what had happened.
Totilas—thank you for the great memories, they are indelibly written on my heart.


When is US $4 billion+ not enough?

1 May




Follow the $$ trail.  It is complicated but interesting–and has a huge bearing on horse sport.

IOC gets $$ from selling TV broadcast rights to the highest bidder.
TV gets $$ from selling commercial spots, not merely on traditional TV but also online and other media platforms.
NBC has traditionally dominated the US television Olympic coverage. The US market represents a huge part of the $$ IOC gets. But NBC reportedly lost around $223 million on the 2010 Winter Olympics. Everyone was worried about 2012, part of their existing contract/bid.
In 2011, NBC, FOX and ESPN bid for TV rights once again. NBC won out with a monster US $ 4.38 billion bid—but spread that amount over the next 4 Olympics 2014, 2016 2018 and 2020.
Influenced by NBC’s longtime commitment-=-and loss the year before—IOC accepted the bid ( ESPN and Fox each bid over 1 billion for the rights to 2014 and 2016). But NBC had a plan to use social media to hype the Olympics, drive what turned out to be  38% more viewers to the TV—and a hefty percentage to its online platforms.

NBC discovered the effect of raising TV viewing spilled over in the most amazing (and lucrative) ways:
“”Archery is the new curling. It’s delivered an average of 1.5 million viewers making it the highest-rated cable sports, beating out basketball,” says Alan Wurtzel, head of research for NBC .
Yes, NBC has found a way in using social and online media to drive viewers to prime time to make money on old-media TV where it can charge the highest rates.
This got new sponsors to want commercial time—and they had to pay a lot more than those who had locked in their rate well before the actual air date of the Olympics. And of course, NBC, now owned by Comcast, is looking to cable for further profits. ““If you can add 20 or 30 million subscribers,” says NBC’s Neal Pilson, “and raise fees by 30 or 40 cents a sub, that’s significant money.”
SO more money .  dollar signs
Which is why IOC now is , um, pained that it accepted “only” 4+ billion $$ while “allowing” NBC to rake in huge profits.
IOC creates its own product coverage of the Olympics and sells the broadcast rights to various local markets that for whatever reason shave not bid already for exclusive rights. Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) is an agency of the International Olympic Committee, established in 2001 to be responsible for host broadcasting – the world feeds provided to all international broadcasters of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games from 2008 on. Previously the host broadcaster role was delegated to the local organising committees or to third-party broadcasters. Then in 2008, IOC woke up and smelled the money.

Taking a page from NBC, it recently realized that social media and online media are key to getting more interest from potential sponsors/selling commercial time for ever more money.
And here we are—with FEI dutifully telling us the New Way To Go: more social media, more appeal to teenagers, more bling and emotion and circus and costume. More countries (because then IOC will then have more markets that might want to see a local boy or girl competing).
Because their own survey shows that 86% want to feel some emotion, not be hushed up and told to quietly appreciate the finer points.

Show jumping and eventing provide all of that (although eventing needs to stick with Pretty Pictures of course—no problems on XC)
Reining was fine before FEI and therefore drives its own bus. They have flowing manes, sliding stops, guys in cowboy hats and jeans, loud whooping crowds and announcers, music and costumed freestyles. Yup, they are in the driver’s seat!
Para is even better off—there is hardly any story/competitor in para equestrian who does not come with a true and heartfelt Story.

So that leaves dressage, the fusty old auntie in white gloves, sipping sherry, hushing everyone, clapping quietly at the end of the performance.

Maybe they have a point or two.
Just hope the beauty of dressage, the reality that it is the ONLY horse sport where welfare is truly paramount (don’t hit me, it is true) doesn’t go under the bus.

2015 is rolling down the hill, but towards what?

20 Apr







In ten days or so, The FEI Sports Forum will hold its annual meeting and once again the blackmail–scusi, the discussion– will begin.
How best to re-create, present, and change/adapt horse sport to the IOC perspective and thus save horse sport, blah blah blah.

For what seems like forever, I have shrugged and admitted that the blackmail position holds me in thrall; that horse sport MUST be in the Olympics; that the ROI for sponsors and for funding means that horse sport must appear on the global stage.

But maybe that is not true.

Maybe it is time to recognize what Andrew Zimbalist means in titling his book “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.”

That the only countries left who truly want to bother putting on the Olympics are mainly dictatorships, because everyone else recognizes that the corruption of IOC and their bloated requirements make sport lower than secondary to the insatiable desire for more and more TV revenue; that it is nearly impossible to break even, let alone make any money by hosting the Olympics , given the economic realities.

What are the figures, according to Zimbalist?
China spent $40 billion to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing and Russia spent $50 billion for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Qatar, which will be the site of the 2022 World Cup, is estimating that it will spend $200 billion.
On World Cup Soccer.
Of course, as much of that has been revealed as bribe and graft money, it remains to be seen if FIFA actually keeps World Cup in this location. But I wonder how much choice they will have?

Horse sport is about admiring and cheering on the partnership between human and horse. That means adequate infrastructure, which for dressage and show jumping means arenas, stalls, and (please! no more Caen!) decent toilets. Even as FEI’s survey reveals that most people do indeed want to admire the partnership, the harmony, the courage of an alien and human working together — they insist there is also the need for bling, for glitz, for sound bytes! For noise machines and circus! For …you get the picture.

Under current IOC guidelines, bidders may drop sports, add new sports, and basically be creative in how they see their budgets, so long as they guarantee TV revenue to IOC..

I started out thinking we need to beg and borrow, if not steal, to stay in the Olympics.
And then I realized “the Olympics” I had in mind was the one from my childhood. When we in the US has USET and we all dreamed of ‘making the Team’.
That Olympics is long, long gone.
And maybe horse sport should be in the forefront of the move to secede from this all-too-bloated and corrupt greed machine that is the current Olympic circus.

World Horse Day

12 Feb

I started World Horse Day partly because it seems such a neat idea, and partly because I was so impressed by Roly Owers’ address to the FEI General Assembly, where he asked for horse welfare to remain a priority.

The FEI rules/governs by apathy: the horse world is all NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and self-absorbed; it can be difficult to get breed people to care about sport, vice versa of course also true. It can be difficult in this day and age of internet and instant-media onslaught to get anyone to care about anything for more than a few days.
The FEI counts on this, simply waiting for the latest protest to die down, carrying on with its all-important work of hiding where the money comes from, not to mention where it goes to.
World Horse Day can be a rallying cry For the Horse, no matter what discipline or breed or circumstance—a banner under which any and all who love horses can acknowledge their desire for welfare of horses everywhere and at all times.
This latest death of an endurance horse epitomized everything wrong—with our international sports federation, with our NIMBY reality, with our indifferent world.

Bundy(Splitter Creek Bundy waiting for the vet )
Two front legs shattered, 20 minutes of further agony waiting for a vet (because the rest of the race/vehicles/hangers-on, grooms and entourages all had to pass by first).
This is just not right.
The line has been drawn. There is no discussion necessary, no inveighing of rules and regulations that allow anyone to say, so sorry, cannot help.

In the name of horses everywhere, Splitters Creek Bundy, you are the patron horse of World Horse Day.
As the Navajo shamans sing, May you walk in beauty forever.

I’m really not sure how to further establish World Horse Day.
Several countries have a Day of the Horse or Horse Day, including the United States (Dec. 13).
The world already has a day set aside for Frogs (March 20) , Snakes ( July 16) , and Gratitude (Sept.21) just to pick from the International Calendar.
Surely one day, worldwide, set aside for Horses is possible and even necessary.
Any ideas on how to ‘get ‘er done’ all welcome.

Ninety percent, here we come…

31 Jan



These recent performances by Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro are moving dressage into new, uncharted territory: the possibility of a 90% score in a technical test.
The Grand Prix at Amsterdam was of such high level, two of the judges (and me) had the pair on world record pace, even including the blip on final centerline.
Putting my money where my mouth is, in my opinion, the scores of 6 and 7 for the blip were exactly spot on. The Passage was minimum 9, the transition to piaffe was minimum 9, the piaffe itself was minimum 9—and then it looked as though Charlotte gave a half-halt in order to ensure that Valegro would take the necessary small-high step out into passage for another minimum 9 instead of the ‘leap-step’ seen all too often as a horse loses engagement when asked for forward . Instead of a half-halt step forward , Valegro ‘heard’ Halt. Charlotte immediately corrected, and off they went, minimum 9 passage and halt.
We used to marvel at and love the incredible partnership and harmony of Ed-and Toto, and frankly, I still do miss them. They have been the gold standard for what dressage is supposed to be about: the schooling of a horse to the point that the invisible communication (aka aids) results in a performance of seamless harmony and expression, rhythm and balance in every stride.
When we watch a pair perform, there is always ‘back-story’ going on: personal hardships, triumphs and despairs; the last performance and its score. For a long time, the story of Charlotte and ‘Blueberry’ seemed too perfect: 3 or 4 international Grand Prixs, all scores well over 70; team status for 2011 European Championships; elevation to super-star status at the Euros; the brilliance of the 2012 Olympics; the domination of 2013 World Cup and the setting of new world records; 2014 on track for even greater heights….
…Frankly, Aachen was a relief.
A loss of focus, a loss of rhythm—probably only Charlotte, Valegro and of course the incomparable Carl Hester really know what happened. Nevertheless, the exquisite timing necessary for one and two-tempis suddenly –pouf!- – went out the window and the focus inherent in great pirouettes went by the wayside. Look! They were fallible after all (the word ‘human’ seems unfair to hurl at Valegro who is far better than that).
The eventual triumph at World Equestrian Games restored what has become the natural order: Charlotte and Valegro’s scores dominant enough to lift the British to team silver—helped by Carl Hester/Nip Tuck , and Michael Eilberg/Dynasty (Gareth Hughes/Nadonna drop score).
2015 is seeing something new from Charlotte and Valegro. The performances at Olympia, these latest ones at Amsterdam—we are seeing a horse in its prime, shining condition, muscles rippling, sup-pleness and power at the ready, matched by a rider equally athletic, equally at the ready, and willing to push herself wherever necessary to keep the focus, keep her own suppleness and power.
I still miss Ed-and-Toto and so heartily wish they were still a partnership and competing, but Charlotte and Valegro are pushing the gold standard to new heights, even without a top rival as stimulus.
Thank you to Carl Hester, whose deep involvement in this partnership, whose own humanity and generosity , and whose decision some years ago to let Peanuts ‘be a horse’ and live turned out has helped the sport to grow in this most welcome direction.
And a last-is-never-least thank you to co-owners of Valegro, Roly Luard and Anne Barrott. Because without the owners, without Team Hester, none of this might have happened.

2015 is around the corner. Some thoughts.

16 Dec


Possibly the most important part of the IOC decisions UNANIMOUSLY voted into existence by its members (which include Princess Haya) is the sentence below:

<< …
“The organisation of sports and events outside the host city and even, in exceptional cases, outside the host country could also be allowed”…>>


“Exceptional.” I have to wonder how “exceptional” is being defined; perhaps as ‘making money for IOC.’

I have to wonder also if Aachen/Lexington will not be looked at to host Olympic equestrian in the future, no matter where the rest of The Games are held. WEG as a concept is just financially ridiculous, only useful for hiding/laundering money and having one bid every 4 years cannot be a good thing. Now that IOC has baldly and blandly said that “events” can be in different regional venues let alone cross national borders…I can see the day that only places that already have the infrastructure will want to put on equestrian.

Another thought:

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. IOC wants money/revenue from whichever sports they allow on ‘their’ Olympic stage; in some circles this is called bribery and corruption but we well know that would never apply to IOC. (rolling of eyes permitted). If dressage wants to stay in the Olympics, if equestrian wants to stay in the Olympics, then we better first get together as a sport and create a discretionary fund.


Second, we need to attract sponsors. Sponsors want ROI. What does everyone think the ROI is in dressage? For me, it is the supreme athleticism of the two athletes involved: I have seen slo-mo of Granat and Keen, to pick two oldies, as well as Totilas and Valegro,in pi-pa, and the results were spectacular and definitely showed the intense energy output, the intense partnership, the intense requirement of core for both athletes,etc….any good film student ought to be able to work with this kind of storyboard. Maybe we could have a contest and offer some $$ to film schools, prizes for top 3 sho9rt films that show the athleticism and intensity of dressage. And that’s my starting point…there is SO much more that could be done in this sport on a local to national to international level.

Third, we need a contest for city kids that somehow involves them and does not maybe require live horses….how about using horse simulator, and having contests:  who can produce one-tempis (after a short time on the simulator) plus someone to explain that it is like bull riding in (very) slow motion…or whatever.   A contest for who can ‘gallop’ the fastest on a simulated course and leave the fences up. Etc. The sport needs to think about how it looks to the rest of the world and what the rest of the world might need as an entry way to something we already know is complex…

We need to find parts of the sport that someone can do with a minimum of background, get local media outlets to come and cover the contest,etc etc… THAT is how you build an audience, how you build ROI, how you stay in the Olympics. All the blah blah about judges is beside the point. No one outside dressage (and many inside dressage) do not care.

Favorite moments

29 Aug


Michael Eilberg on the great gray mare, Half Moon Delphi. What an addition to the British team prospects!



Helen Langehanenberg on the great stallion, Damon Hill; Alydar to Valegro’s Affirmed



Laura Graves and Verdades, shooting stars deluxe, on the Great Adventure which just happened to be WEG, with scores climbing from mid 70’s to the 82+ today in the freestyle!




It is really difficult to take a bad photo of this pair. Team Hester, enjoying The Zone that exists for the great ones.



I’m stopping here  with images only because the internet connection in the media center at WEG has just decided to go south, along with our toilets (no am not kidding).


Some thoughts:

Is the glass half empty, half full, or are we always going to finish up an event by saying ‘the horses were great!’ and let that excuse everything else?

Is WEG just getting too ridiculously unprofitable to run?  Perhaps.

FEI is getting ever fewer bids, even pretending that a single bid has actually been considered carefully —  as opposed to desperately.


But continuing to add disciplines and require more money back from the Organizing  Committee, more proof of public and private $$–all of which seems to always disappear at the last moment—it is getting ridiculous.


The Olympics and World Championships in the various disciplines may prove to be the way to go, plus World Cups.

The venue for dressage, eventing’s show jumping and regular show jumping is all in this soccer stadium, D’Ornano. There are no vendors, toilets that are holes in the ground and defy anyone to move fast enough not to get splashed by back-flush. There is a security force who are one step removed–maybe only half a step– from the notorious Hell’s Angels at Altamont, a generation ago at the Rolling Stones concert that will always be remembered for the thuggery and death ,rather than the music.

It is difficult to build horse sport when someone not already a fan of something has to decide what to go see, and then finds out there is nothing to see.—the parking is execrable and there are no shops, barely a hot dog stand and one over-priced brasserie the size of a postage stamp with huge lines.


I stop to take a photo of the anatomically complete and correct metal rearing horse that looks like Hi-Yo Silver but is supposed to be a Percheron stallion.



We have afternoon break entertainment today! Usually they just lock everyone out of the stadium in order to ensure ticket collection for paid AM and paid PM  performances.

Buying a ticket to a performance at the stadium guarantees the holder a section of the stadium–but not an assigned seat.

When they kick people out of stadium at lunch break, there have been fistfights when people return and find OTHER people screaming they now have those particular seats and to go elsewhere in that section.

But non! Today’s 15 freestyle rides is one ticket.

So we shall have the medal ceremony for endurance.

Individual gold goes to Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum, yes a close relative of Sheikh Mohammed. Hamdan was being investigated (really?????) by FEI for riding a ringer horse at least once in competition and arranging for all data on the horse to be erased from the FEI online database.

Also, Team gold goes to Spain.  The team’s  lead rider, Jaume Punti Dachs, is the head trainer  for  the Maktoum endurance stable in Newmarket,England —where the illegal veterinary drugs came in on the private Dubai plane.

And then, everyone troops back into the stadium,herded by the security, and we watch 7 horses get over 80 per cent.

WEG dressage is over.